Virgin Galactic takes one giant leap toward space tourism

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MOJAVE, Calif. – A Virgin Galactic rocket plane on Friday soared to the edge of space with a test passenger for the first time, nudging British billionaire Richard Branson’s company closer to its goal of suborbital flights for space tourists.

Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, who will train future space tourists, joined pilots onboard SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity to evaluate the customer experience and cabin.

“This is what we’re here to do, we’re here to fly people in the back of our spaceship, that’s what it’s all about,” said pilot David Mackay, who is now the first Scottish-born astronaut. “So for me, it was an important step towards that operation.”

The WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane took off soon after 8 a.m. local time from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. It released the SpaceShipTwo passenger craft at an altitude of about 44,000 feet and then the spaceship was catapulted to 55 miles above Earth.

The reusable SpaceShipTwo craft previously flew to an altitude of more than 51 miles in December 2018, marking the first U.S. commercial human flight beyond the atmosphere since the end of America’s shuttle programme in 2011.

Hundreds of spectators, including Virgin Galactic ticket holders and CEO George Whitesides, gathered on a clear morning in the desert to watch this latest test flight. The flight was postponed from Wednesday due to winds.

“We’re in the 50th anniversary year of Apollo, and just like they had to do each step, we have to expand the envelope and do something more,” Whitesides told the crowd.

Moses, now the first woman to fly onboard a commercial space vehicle, called it an “indescribable ride,” adding: “Richard, you’re going to love it.”

More than 600 people from 58 countries, including actor Leonardo DiCaprio and pop star Justin Bieber, have paid or put down deposits to fly on one of Virgin’s suborbital flights. Some of Virgin Galactic’s ticket holders have been waiting over 14 years for their trip.

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